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How Zahra coped with the pressures of university life

“It’s safe to say that it was the single most challenging year of my life. Being thrown out of my comfort zone like that and seeing myself fail everyday was humbling and a grounding experience. I had never experienced so much failure in such a short span of time.”

Having chosen her dream course Zahra was excited to get started on her Master's. However, the first week plunged her into anxiety and despair as she felt unprepared and out of her depth. Feeling under immense pressure Zahra quickly spiralled down. This is her story of how she coped and what helped her through.

Woman writing in a notebook

Starry-eyed and bushy-tailed, I landed in the UK all ready for a fresh start with a new course. I was very excited and looking forward to change! This was a dream come true in every way but at the same time, a huge move. I was the first one from my entire extended family to have gone abroad for studies, and a lot was expected of me.

This was a new country and a different culture, everything seemed unlike what I had been used to growing up. I was fluent in English, but I found accents difficult to understand at first. What’s okay to say, what’s okay to do? I had to make do with what little funds I had on myself and everything sounded extremely expensive when I would do a quick currency conversion in my head. It was all a bit daunting at first, I did not want to make mistakes and would hold myself back, double-checking at every step. I was a huge ball of confusion for the first few days and struggled to find my bearings, both logistically and socially.

Choosing the right course to pursue was also so important for me, as this was going to set the tone for my foreseeable academic as well as professional future. I chose mine based on my Bachelor’s thesis, which was in silico research into the longevity genes of the roundworm. In my mind, this was an excellent and strategic choice based on a lot of thought! It turned out to be an incredible challenge.

First day of classes was a preliminary practical workshop on basic commands in Linux. I had never heard of Linux and all I saw was a black screen and a menacing looking prompt, daring me to make a move. There were no graphics on this black screen in front of me that would distract my mind or comfort me. I was typing away each command in hopes of making the dark screen go away. Nothing I typed would change that ominous-looking, uninviting, and seemingly ice-cold black screen.

All I could think of was this was my first day in a brand new course, with a bunch of new classmates I could not afford for anyone to see me crying!! I did not want to be seen as a ‘premature loser’ who couldn’t even last the first day. I left the class.

My self-esteem took a huge hit knowing I was struggling in the very first class. I had saved up for this degree for three years, undertaking multiple jobs in order to afford it. The stakes were high and that was feeding into my anxious state of mind, making me jump to worst-case scenarios and imagining myself packing my bags and going home because I couldn’t deal with it. Not feeling able to deal with something was a first for me.

The next week the curriculum was getting complicated fast and I felt lost throughout. Vectors? Variables? Matrices? Data structures? What language was my professor even speaking? I looked to my left, and then to my right, and then behind me. I saw students nodding their heads confidently, letting our professor know they followed. And here I was sitting without a clue about what he was saying. My non-mathematical brain couldn’t make sense of any of it and I started hyperventilating again.

This time I couldn’t stop my tears as things had been building up from the previous week. I picked up my things as quickly as I could and made a dash for my dorm room. I closed the door and cried, and when that didn’t help, I howled. I didn’t care if my voice was traveling across the dorm and my housemates would hear me. I cried until I couldn’t anymore. And then I picked up the phone and called the student administrator, asking for a tuition fee refund. Maybe I was not meant to do this.

I had no friends to turn to, being so early in the course and having relocated just over a week ago. It wasn’t until a few emails from my professor who had noticed my absence, lots of gentle encouragement from a girl in class I had bumped into during orientation, and reassurance from student support that I was able to return to class. That was the first step, being able to sit through them without bursting into tears again.

There were a few things that really helped me get through my course and overcome those initial challenging weeks. I did have to work really hard, it took a lot out of me but looking back I'm so proud of what I achieved. I also made sure to prioritize my time and tried to work smart. I used all of the resources I had at my disposal including making good friends with the research assistants on my course and talking to my professor as much as I could.

I also made good use of the library, studying alongside others. Seeing first-hand their ups and downs definitely made me feel better and gave me hope.

I don’t think I would have made it through, had it not been for my professor who had been forever encouraging and helpful, and my two amazing friends, an amazing Lebanese girl who struggled with the course as much as I did; and the kindest person I know, my best friend Esteban from France (who also happened to be a whiz-kid in all things IT, which helped!) We would spend hours, all working side by side right until the very last minute before assignment submission. And once we handed one in at midnight, and we celebrated and danced together. Celebrating the wins made it all the more worth the hard work!

The feeling of accomplishing something so challenging and seeing it to fruition was exhilarating but short-lived because come Monday, we would start a new module and rinse and repeat all over again. The lows were low, and the highs, though few, were high, but they were my support system and my rock, not leaving my side when I would break down and they were there for me, just as much as I was there for them. Looking back, I think that we saved each other in more ways than one and I wouldn’t know what I would have done without them.

From feeling small, hiding in the back and getting anxious when someone would expect me to speak about anything technical, to marching to my professor’s office when it was time to choose my thesis topic and confidently asking him to assign me a ‘programming heavy’ thesis, it was a long journey full of challenges. Looking back though, it’s safe to say that it was the single most challenging year of my life. Being thrown out of my comfort zone like that and seeing myself fail every day was humbling and a grounding experience. I had never experienced so much failure in such a short span of time.

I wanted to share my experience to let anyone who is reading this know that sometimes, wrong turns can lead to a path unknown. I know mine led to a beautiful destination in the end but I couldn’t have done it all alone. It definitely felt like the world was ending back then! Now I know differently.

If there is one message to take away it’s that you don’t have to go through this alone. ❤️


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